“May your blessings outnumber the shamrocks that grow, and may trouble avoid you wherever you go,” read welcome cards that were placed on tables at Toronto-based pub The Rabbit Hole, where Royal Irish Tours (RIT), Invest Northern Ireland, Tourism Ireland, and others, gathered for a pre-St. Patrick's Day lunch on Wednesday (March 8).
The cheerful get-together, held in honour of Ireland’s Patron Saint ahead of St Patrick’s Day (on March 17), doubled as a whisky tasting.
Joining the event was John Kelly, CEO of McConnell's Irish Whisky – a premium Northern Irish product that’s available in Canada – who poured a sweet, warm-tasting, five-year-old sample for all to enjoy.
As attendees dove into a taste of opulence, Kelly explained how McConnell's – an iconic brand dating back to 1776 – will soon open a new distillery and visitor centre in Northern Ireland’s capital this fall (in a Victorian-era jail, no less).
“Our mission is to bring distilling back to Belfast,” Kelly told attendees, noting how there hasn’t been active distilling in the city for almost 100 years.
The original home of McConnell's was actually in Belfast – it produced whisky there until it shuttered in 1930.
McConnell's new facility, drawing on nearly 250 years of experience, will span three floors, with 1,000 square meters of distilling floor space and 1,700 square meters for the visitor centre, which will offer experiences such as whiskey tours, cocktail classes, a tasting bar and shopping.
The state-of-the-art venue will undoubtedly be a boon to tourism in Ireland, which is well on its way to a post-COVID recovery – especially as far as Canadian arrivals are concerned.
All eyes on Ireland
Spotted yesterday was Sandra Moffatt, manager at Tourism Ireland, Canada, who noted how last year (2022), Ireland achieved 75 per cent of its 2019 Canadian numbers.
“Which we’re really happy about given that Canadians didn’t start travelling until later in the season,” Moffatt told PAX.
Air lift from Canada to Ireland was a key driver, she said, as the destination restored 96 per cent of its 2019 connectivity across five gateways.
“That’s continuing into this year,” Moffatt said, saying that 2023’s arrival numbers from Canada are expected to rise to 80 per cent of 2019 levels.
Tourism Ireland just wrapped a major trade roadshow that brought a delegation of 20 businesses from Ireland, and three Canadian partners, to London and Ottawa in Ontario, Montreal in Quebec and Halifax in Nova Scotia.
The events aimed to help travel advisors sell Ireland by targeting consumer passion points of adventure and experiences, “craic” and culture, history, and heritage as well as luxury travel via panel discussions by industry experts.
Despite winter storms, keen travel advisors still showed up (in total, the events connected with more than 320 trade professionals).
Canada and Ireland, after all, are closely connected. Some 4.5 million Canadians claim Irish ancestry and Ireland, a gateway to Europe, is just a six-hour flight from Toronto.
“Agents are interested in new experiences, festivals and events,” Moffatt told PAX, noting that Halloween, this year, will be a big push.
The ghoulish celebration actually dates back to pagan Ireland, some 2,000 years ago, when the ancient festival of Samhain was celebrated in Ireland's Ancient East to mark the start of winter.
“We’re having a great comeback"
Also representing at yesterday’s lunch were partners from Air Transat and Air Canada, British Consul General Greg Quinn and VisitBritain.
Leading yesterday’s big Irish welcome was Royal Irish Tours, a family-owned Canadian tour operator, with Irish roots, that specializes in hand-crafted vacations in Ireland, as well as Scotland, England and Wales.
From the basalt columns at the Giant’s Causeway to the Cliffs of Moher to Dublin’s pubs, RIT’s passion lies in promoting authentic experiences that its team members have experienced themselves.
RIT’s tours, which are mostly made up of Canadians, kick off this April, “which will be our first full season since 2019,” Jonathan Sargeant, director of sales at RIT, told PAX.
Offering coach and sightseeing tours and self-drive and chauffeured itineraries, RIT’s season runs until October, and spots are filling up quickly, Sargeant said.
Driving holidays – where RIT books your accommodations, gets you a car, hands you a map and sends you on your way – are particularly popular right now, he said.
So are chauffeured drives – mini coach tours, involving small groups and customized travel, led by expert guides.
Location wise, “Northern Ireland is hot,” Sargeant said, noting that tours to that region are almost sold out, and travellers, keen on staying longer in destinations, are requesting multi-country itineraries, which is why RIT offers combos between Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales.
“We’re having a great comeback,” added Conor Duffy, RIT’s vice-president. “2019 was our best year ever and we’re chasing on that right now.”
Pent-up demand, he said, is driving RIT’s rebound as clients who postponed trips back in 2020, when the pandemic first set in, commit to packing their bags once again.
His advice to travel advisors looking to secure their clients a spot on a future RIT tour?
“If you want to get away this summer, book now,” Duffy said. “It’s already booming.”